Fact Checked

How Anxiety Causes Lack of Air/Breathlessness

Faiq Shaikh, M.D.
How Anxiety Causes Lack of Air/Breathlessness

Anxiety causes symptoms that can not only impact your life - they can actually cause more anxiety. Anxiety is the type of condition that often becomes self-sustaining, causing you to fear for your health and wellbeing in a way that hurts your day to day comfort levels.

A common anxiety symptom is a feeling of having a lack of air. Sometimes referred to as shortness of breath or breathlessness, a lack of air is a harmless condition but can result in its own symptoms that may make your anxiety attacks worse.

The Lack of Air Feeling

Lack of air starts with your fight or flight system. When your fight or flight system is activated, it causes you to breathe more quickly. This is actually to your advantage - when you're getting ready to fight or flee, you need any extra air you can get to power your heart and prepare you to run.

Hyperventilation and Anxiety

But you don't run because you're not actually in danger. Instead, you simply sit there and breathe too quickly. This causes what's known as hyperventilation, which translates to "over breathing."

Many people mistakenly believe that hyperventilation is a lack of oxygen. But hyperventilation is a lack of carbon dioxide. When you breathe too quickly, you breathe out more carbon dioxide than you have a chance to create. Eventually, your blood becomes over-oxygenated (too much oxygen), and your blood ventricles start to contract.

Paradoxical Effects of Hyperventilation

But here's where it gets tricky. Even though hyperventilation causes a lack of carbon dioxide, the symptoms of hyperventilation are nearly identical to what you would experience if you lacked oxygen.

In other words, hyperventilation causes a paradoxical effect. It makes you feel like you're not taking in enough oxygen (i.e., a lack of air) so you try to breathe in more. Unfortunately, because your body doesn't need the oxygen, your stomach isn't able to expand as much, and this creates a feeling as though you lack air. The symptoms tend to get worse and worse as you continue to try to breathe in more air than you need without regaining your carbon dioxide levels

Eventually, this can lead to a full-blown panic attack, or at the very least an increase in your anxiety. Hyperventilation, and this feeling as though you lack air are the primary causes of many of the worst symptoms of an anxiety attack.

Symptoms of Hyperventilation

It should also be noted that hyperventilation also causes its own symptoms and that these symptoms can also increase anxiety and panic attacks. In addition to feeling like you have a lack of air, hyperventilation can also cause:

Don't forget that you may also have this incredible urge to yawn or take deeper breaths (because of that lack of air feeling), and you may also start belching or burping more as well.

Now, it should be noted that despite these symptoms, hyperventilation is not dangerous. Rarely there can be a few problems, especially if you have a severe heart condition, and certainly, panic attacks are extremely difficult to live with, but hyperventilation itself is not considered anything to worry about. It simply feels terrible.

Other Causes of Hyperventilation

Also, hyperventilation can be caused by other issues related to anxiety, all of them leading to a lack of air. These include:

There are also health conditions like asthma that can lead to rapid breathing and a lack of air, and since asthma and related conditions are scary, that can also cause anxiety.

It's important to note that you should always visit a doctor if you feel like lack of air is a problem. Even though it is a common anxiety symptom, there is simply little reason to leave something like this to chance. See a doctor, and rule out any potentially more dangerous issues that may be causing these same symptoms first, that way you can rest your mind a little bit on your heart and lung health.

How to Overcome a Lack of Air From Anxiety

Once it's been established that this lack of air is anxiety related, there are several strategies that you can try to start decreasing it. Consider the following:

Once you've started feeling this lack of air, it tends to be too late to stop it. In a way, you need to get your breathing under control as best you can, and then wait it out for the symptoms to go away.

That's why the most important thing you can do for your breathing is prevention, and you can prevent it by learning to control your anxiety.

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